Is The MLS Ready to Become a Footballing Superpower?

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For years now the landscape of club football has been dominated by the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga. These leagues have the biggest clubs, the best players and generate the most fan excitement and money. Whilst some leagues, most recently the Chinese Super League have threatened to break this quintet up no league has come close.

This year the MLS is celebrating its 25th anniversary, however within a couple of years the MLS could be celebrating becoming one of the biggest leagues in the world. The MLS has everything a league needs to become successful and will just be a matter of putting all the pieces together to create a truly world class league.

Players

David Beckham’s transfer to LA Galaxy revolutionised the MLS back in 2007 and saw the creation of the Designated Player Rule. Nicknamed the Beckham rule, this allows MLS clubs to sign up to three players outside of their salary cap. In recent season’s this has seen the likes of Kaka (Orlando City), Zlatan Ibrahimović (LA Galaxy), Bastian Schweinsteiger (Chicago Fire) and David Villa and Andrea Pirlo (New York City FC) move to America.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic

One of the accusations thrown at the MLS is that it has become a retirement home for Europe’s big stars and while it is true these players moved there at the end of their careers they still generate huge interest and casual fans will tune in to watch them play. During Ibrahimović’s recent stint with LA Galaxy the Swede was hardly ever out of the media constantly drumming up publicity for the league.

Gradually, the league is starting to lose its “retirement league” tag with more players heading to the US in their prime with Javier Hernandez and Carlos Vela amongst the top players currently in the league. Hernandez and Vela could also soon be joined by bigger name players with Real Madrid’s James Rodriquez being strongly linked with both LA Galaxy and Inter Miami.

Rodriquez’s Madrid teammate Garth Bale is also being linked to MLS with Bale recently saying “I think a lot more players want to come over to America now and play. I’d definitely be interested in it. I love going to Los Angeles on holiday and stuff like that.”

Away from big name players from Europe one thing the MLS has become good at over the last couple of years is picking up talent from Mexico and South America. Cristian Pavón (LA Galaxy), Rodolfo Pizarro (Inter Miami) and Gonzalo Martínez (Atlanta United) all are good enough to play in a major European league put instead headed to MLS, if this trend continues it will only help raise the standard of football in the MLS.

Location

One thing that cannot be overlooked when discussing the MLS is the location. America is home to some of the most popular cities in the world from New York to Miami and Los Angeles to Orlando the prospect of living in the United States is a very attractive one.

Miami

Whilst location might not seem like a big factor it can play a crucial role. It has been well documented that Angel Di Maria never settled in Manchester when he moved to Manchester United in 2014 with his wife recently describing the city as “horrible”. Who knows how things could have turned out for Di Maria at Old Trafford had he and his family been able to settle in Manchester.

Players especially from Europe could also be attracted by the idea of having more freedom in the United States, most won’t be household names in America thus giving them more freedom to do things like go out with their families to restaurants and parks without being recognised and getting surrounded by media and fans like they do in Europe.

This is something Wayne Rooney discussed whilst playing at DC United saying;

“Everyday life, it is something I didn’t have as a child growing up from 16 and going into the first team and then playing for England”

“It is nice to still be playing and be able to do that. In terms of my time with my family, it’s a lot more enjoyable.”

Rivalries

A reason why the European leagues are so popular is because they contain so many big matches born out of football’s biggest rivalries. Games between Manchester United and Liverpool or Barcelona and Real Madrid attract huge global audience’s and while the best rivalries have years of history behind them there is the potential for some huge ones to develop in the MLS.

The fixture which looks likely to become the MLS’s flagship game is El Tráfico, the LA derby between LA Galaxy and LAFC. Despite the two sides only first meeting in March 2018 the two rivals have already shared some memorable matches from Zlatan Ibrahimović inspiring the Galaxy to a 4-3 comeback victory in the very first El Tráfico or LAFC’s 5-3 victory in the 2019 playoffs.

Around the league there is lots of potential for very marketable derbies and rivalries such as New York Red Bull v NYCFC, Orlando City v Inter Miami, Portland Timbers v Seattle Sounders as well as derbies in Texas and amongst the league’s three Canadian teams.

Timbers fans

Portland and Seattle share the unique rivalry with Vancouver Whitecaps which most leagues around the world don’t have in the fact they aren’t just rivals from the same league but they are from different countries. Another rivalry like this could develop between Seattle and Toronto with the two teams meeting three times in the last four MLS cup finals, this would be a rivalry based out of success a bit like Chelsea and Manchester United only again would have the uniqueness of being teams from different countries.

Stadiums

The United States is home to numerous world class sporting facilities and is often the destination of choice for large European clubs as a base for their pre-season. The MLS can back these facilities up with having a wide range of high class stadiums.

Stadiums are vital to leagues; they need to be able to provide a good experience for the fans visiting the stadium but also look visually good for the fans watching on TV. The stadiums in the MLS currently range from the huge modern Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to the much smaller atmospheric stadiums such as Portland’s Providence Park.

Mercedes Benz stadium

A problem the MLS use to have was that a lot of its sides would be playing in stadiums built for American Football. The stadiums would often be empty and lack atmosphere and weren’t practical for the MLS. Seattle Sounders have shown this can work playing at CenturyLink Field, however the main reason for this is that Seattle are widely regarded as having the most passionate fan bases in the MLS and create atmospheres within the stadium that would rival that of some European clubs.

Many clubs in the MLS are now going down the route of building their own purpose built stadiums with DC United, LAFC and Orlando City amongst the clubs who have recently gone down this route. These new stadiums will benefit the MLS in the long run and will provide full stadiums generating great atmospheres.

Kits

Football kits are the most important form of merchandise for any football team and fortunately for the MLS they have some very nice kits to sell.

The MLS has a kit deal with Adidas who make the kits for every team in the league and have been the MLS’s kit supplier since 2004. In 2017 MLS signed a new deal six-year deal with Adidas rumoured to be worth around $700 million dollars.

Around the world teams are instantly recognisable from the kits they wear whether it be Barcelona’s red and blue stripes or Real Madrid’s white shirts it’s undoubtable that kits are important especially to younger fans which MLS has a lot of.

LA Galaxy’s white shirt is probably the most recognisable kit in the MLS thanks impart to David Beckham’s time at the club when a Beckham 23 shirt was in high demand.  As more and more big players head to MLS, the kits will become more and more popular with fans around the world, it’s very easy to imagine if Inter Miami are able to sign a player like Luis Suarez with thousands of fans rushing out to buy an Inter Miami shirt with Suarez 9 on the back.

David Beckham

Celebrity Culture 

The most popular domestic competition in cricket is by far the Indian Premier League. Since its launch in 2008 the IPL has dominated cricket. A reason for this is that the league was able to successfully combine the glitz and glamour of Bollywood with cricket. It’s now common to see some of Bollywood’s biggest stars attending IPL matches and some are even owners of franchises. The MLS could do a lot worse than follow this blue print set out by the IPL.

If the MLS could combine with Hollywood it would be a game changer. David Beckham’s ownership of Inter Miami is the most obvious link to Hollywood and celebrity culture in the MLS but Inter Miami are not the only ones with LAFC’s ownership group containing Will Ferrell and Magic Johnson.

The biggest stars like Beckham, Ibrahimović and Hernandez appear on the late night talk shows in America crossing that link between sport and celebrity. The potential is definitely there, when a Manchester United or Barcelona are in the States for pre-season they become a magnet for celebrities to attend a match or training session. If this could be recreated with MLS teams on a regular basis it would be massive for the league.

Obama presented with Galaxy shirt

The Negative’s

While the MLS has a lot working in its favour to become a world class league, there is still a couple of areas that it will need to improve before it can be classed as an elite league and talked about in the same breath with a Premier League or La Liga.

America needs to produce more young players who will play in the MLS for an extended period of time to improve the level of domestic players in the league. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest are amongst a number of exciting young American players but none have played in the MLS. Canada’s Alphonso Davies played 65 games for Vancouver before his move to Bayern Munich and though only there for a short period of time his local fans were still able to watch him play live in a stadium.

Pulisic has never played in MLS

In the short to medium term the MLS needs to get to a place like Liga Nos in Portugal or the Eredivisie in the Netherlands where they produce top young players who start their careers in these leagues and are exposed to a domestic audience before heading to a bigger European club, with the hope being for the MLS in the long term that as the league gets better these players will want to stay and play in MLS and can be at the top of the game without the need for heading to Europe.

The other negative against the MLS is the format and time of year the MLS is played. The playoff system is something which is relatable to an American audience but is something which is alien to a wider global football audience. Most other leagues around the world have a promotion and relegation system in place.

This system gives leagues more meaning throughout the season for teams both at the top and bottom of the league. The threat of relegation would push MLS sides from getting complacent and make them get better knowing that they could drop out of the MLS. The idea of promotion and relegation is something which might not sit well with an American audience although most fans would be aware of the concept from following other leagues.

The MLS season also runs out of sync with that of the other European leagues running from March – November compared to Europe’s August – May.  This has many negatives for the MLS such as not running with Europe’s transfer window and clashing with FIFA dates.

MLS can’t compete with Euros

Had Euro 2020 gone ahead this year the MLS would have clashed with it and that is a battle it would never win. By moving to a European calendar MLS could rectify these issues whilst also create new opportunities. For example, more MLS sides would be available in July to play pre-season games against European clubs in America or further still could travel to Europe and play for example Manchester United v Chicago Fire at Old Trafford or head to the far east and have LA Galaxy v Real Madrid in Tokyo to sell their product to a larger audience.

The MLS has all the potential in the world to become a superpower of world football and with a World Cup on the horizon in the USA and Canada football will be getting more attention. Only time will tell if the MLS can turn their league in to a truly world class product.

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